Tales of IT: Introducing CRAPS

Today I start a new series: Tales of IT. In this series, I will be discussing some of the more humorous things I come across in my work in the IT world. Some are funny ha-ha, some are funny-weird, and some are just funny-sad.

Let me start by telling you a little about what I do. I'm a "Systems Analyst" for a local governement agency. In my organization, that means that I do software development (that's my favorite part), analysis, some server administration, some help desk stuff - whatever comes up. So at this point, I can basically do some of everything.

Now let me tell you about the organization I work for. Being the government, it should go without saying that it's extremely disfunctional. One of the more annoying disfunctions of the IT department is what I call the "you touch it, you own it" theory of tech support. By that, I mean that, for any software system (especially big, complicated, or expensive ones), there is an analyst who "owns" that system. Ownership is determined on a first-come, first-served basis, so if you're the first person to touch a new system, you will own that system until you quit, retire, or die. The natural result of this is that nobody will ever volunteer for anything.

Now, you may be thinking that having a "local expert" on every system we use is a good idea. And you'd be right. It is a good idea to have somebody with a degree of in-depth knowledge around. That isn't the issue.

The problem is simply that the whole situation is completely demoralizing. When you own a system, you become the goto guy for all problems related to that system. That includes everything from the hardish analysis work of determining the proper system configuration all the way down to the grunt work of clicking next through client installations on a couple dozen workstations. If somebody calls the help desk with a problem related to your system, it gets passed straight back to you - the help desk doesn't even try to resolve it or even get more information.

This brings me to a system I own, the Crazy and Ridiculously Attrocious Police System, or CRAPS for short. CRAPS is the system used by the police force to write tickets, take accident reports, and so forth. I got stuck with it because it runs on the terminals in the police cars, and since I already owned the 911 dispatching software on those terminals, and my boss apparently didn't think I had enough pain in my life, I was the obvious choice.

I've got plenty of stories about CRAPS, but today I'll just tell you about the system itself. For starters, CRAPS has a "client-server" design. By that, they mean the system stores data in Access 2000 databases that sit on a file "server" and that the "clients" get pointed to the mapped drive or UNC path to those databases. Sort of.

You see, the CRAPS manuals and installation program seem a little confused about just what a server is. The installer has options to perform a "server install" and a "client and server install." What this choice really comes down to is "install just the .MDB files on this machine or install the .MDB files and the program files on this machine."

The important thing to note here is that both options are for this machine. That means that if you want to do what we did and put just the databases on your file server, the installed expects you to log in on the file server to run the installation. You can't just run from another machine and point the installer to the network location. I know, I tried. It fouls up things in the next stages of installation. It turns out that there's a reason the manual "strongly recommends" that you keep the default installation path of C:\CRAPS - things tend to get messed up if you don't.

Part of the reason things get messed up is that a basic CRAPS install is a 2-step process. First, you install the base system. Second, you install an add-on package with all the databases you need to actually get things done. The databases from both packages need to be on the server, but there is no "server install" option for the add-on databases. In fact, you can't even change the installation path. They get installed to the same path as your base system. Unless you changed the default path. In that case, some of the files get installed to the right place and some of them disapear into the ether, never to be heard from again. In fact, I've found that it's more reliable to just install everything on a workstation and then copy manually copy the data directory to the file server. It really shouldn't be, but it is.

At this point, CRAPS is installed on the file server, but is not yet functional. We'll explore how to make it work tomorrow.

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